This article has been written with the support of CalMac.
Scotland's islands across the four seasons
- Arusa Qureshi
- 27 March 2019
Isle if Islay / courtesy of VisitScotland, credit Paul Tomkins
What to expect year round from when to go for the Northern Lights to golden eagle breeding season
The seasons may change but that doesn't mean there is ever a bad time to visit Scotland's islands. Arusa Qureshi explains where to go and what to see whatever the time of year
As the dark days and long nights start to fade, the islands off the west coast come alive with wildlife on a breeding mission and nature that blooms in glorious fashion. Balranald, on the island of North Uist, is ideal for stunning island fauna and migrating birds, including lapwings, corncrakes and corn bunting which you can catch as you walk along the beaches and marshland.
You might even see skuas and divers at sea and porpoises jumping from the water. Islay, the fifth largest Scottish island with an impressive 130 miles of coastline, is also home to healthy bird and deer populations. Head over to Loch Gruinart where you'll find two RSPB hides for great bird-watching opportunities.
Elsewhere, you may just spot a puffin or two as they come ashore to breed from April to August in places like Staffa, the Treshnish Isles and St Kilda. The months of February and March, meanwhile, are perfect for observing golden eagles as they prepare for breeding season, performing acrobatic displays across the sky. Keep an eye out for them on North Harris, Lewis, South Uist, and Mull (which also has sea eagles), hold the highest densities.
Each west-coast island may have its own individual charm, but as the temperature rises in the summer months this is when island-hopping becomes most appealing. With white sandy beaches and turquoise seas, a plethora of outdoor events and activities, and exceptionally fresh seafood on offer, there's much to explore in July and August.
Get the ferry to Coll and if you're lucky you might get to spot some basking sharks in the wild. The Outer Hebrides boast some of the best wild swimming spots in the UK during summer including the remote Traigh Iar on North Uist and picturesque Luskentyre Beach on the Isle of Harris. Summer is also the ideal time to try out activities like sea kayaking, abseiling, gorge walking or coasteering, which can all be attempted at Raasay House on Skye.
Wild flowers take over on the Hebridean machair in the summer months, with exceptional colours and plant species providing a fitting backdrop. The Achamore Gardens on Gigha, the Mount Stuart Gardens on the Isle of Bute or the Armadale Castle and Gardens on the Isle of Skye are great options for seeing magnificent Rhododendrons and Azaleas and unusual tree shrubs.
As autumnal colours begin to emerge, the wildlife of the islands typically change with birds migrating south to avoid the coming cold. But species like the red deer, Scotland's largest wild mammal, can be spotted year round in moorland and forests around the Isle of Rum, Isle of Mull and the Knoydart Peninsula. Just be aware that Autumn is mating season and spotting needs to be done sensitively. Take in the special autumn scenery by walking or cycling the Hebridean Way, offering the opportunity to visit ten islands over the course of 156 miles.
With lamb being at its most succulent in autumn, it's a good time to try out locally reared meat and game. Taste-test the best specialities and delicacies by going on the Eat Drink Hebrides Trail, a self-guided path that allows you to sample food and drink experiences in the Outer Hebrides via shops, restaurants and producers.
If you're looking for adventure, Tiree is the place to go in October. Known as one of the windiest spots in the UK, the most westerly island in the Inner Hebrides is simultaneously one of the sunniest, with pleasant temperatures thanks to the warm Gulf Stream. Tiree's windy conditions make it especially popular among windsurfers, who make the annual pilgrimage for the Tiree Wave Classic.
Even in the winter months, the breathtaking scenery and peaceful solitude of the west coast isles makes them an attractive location for a short break. Plus, the freshness of the wild winter weather is a brilliant way to dispel those seasonal blues, getting you ready for the festive period ahead. The Isle of Coll also makes the perfect location for star gazing as Scotland's first official Dark Sky Community.
The low winter sun makes for terrific photographs of the untamed landscape but above all, the darkness of winter and low levels of light pollution offer a rare chance to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights in places like Lewis, Harris and the most northerly tip of Skye.
Islands wildlife in winter is as spectacular as it is throughout the year, with red deer, white mountain hares and otters sometimes seen toughing it out in the frosty weather. Wildfowl are easy to spot in coastal areas and lochs, as many arrive from Greenland to escape the particularly harsh weather in favour of wetlands. Islay, for example, is known for the tens of thousands of wild geese that visit every winter. Head to RSPB Loch Gruinart Nature Reserve to see them Greenland white-fronted geese up close.